The Book
By: Michael A. Arnold

Now he had done it, there was no way to fix things now.

Croneman had worked day by day in the black–shrouded back rooms of Gillinnith's pub, making sure all the books were right (or at least made sense) and reading through letters sent to the manager. These were mostly legal documents, and tedious beyond mere words. The candles were not a great help, they would only light the immediate area around his desk – but this was something he now was used to. Just one year ago he had been so used to magic lights that non–magical, human tools like candles would have seemed to him unusably inferior. But a job was a job, and this was keeping him fed and in a home. Or room.

It was amazing what you could get used to.

So, when the hobbit boy was sitting, 'helping', and asking too many questions, of course he would mix up two epistulae ('letters' in the common tongue), and send them to the wrong places. Soon the war department would get a rather forceful letter requesting better word on when management would receive the Elvin artefacts that should have really got here by now, and the Ardon city harbour master would get a letter humbly apologising for the fact Gillinnith could not send any more barrels to help in the war effort, but of course the propaganda posters would go up this week. He would have to tell Gillinnith what he had done, even though the thought of doing that scared him.

As he walked through the streets of Ardon, rattling with life, he remembered the hobbit boy watching him as he wrote.

Nōn summus…

"What is that?" the boy said, reaching over to prod the nōn, "that thing there?"

"That is called a macron," he said, sighing. Another question.

"What it do?"

"It shows the reader how to say that vowel."

He expected he would have to explain what a vowel was again. The boy asked, "why?"

Croneman did not have an answer, it was just how Vallarian was written. He ignored the question.

When pushed, Croneman would have said he actually did like the boy, in the end. For a hobbit, the boy was unusually smart. He could read, which was not something hobbits could usually do – even as adults. And his hobbit eyes, too wide for Croneman to ever get used to, had a fire in them.

Yes, he had been irritable with the boy. Writing letters and documents for humans, in Vallarian, always made him feel clouded. As an elf himself, his people's language and heritage had become fetishised by the humans, and he did not like it. The fact Vallarian was being used by humans as a homage to the old ways felt, to him, sacrilegious. But elves had lost the wars, and his species had almost died out in Ardon.

It was all wars now, he thought. And that made him sad.

Croneman entered Gillinnith's pub. Thoughts had distracted him well enough from his worry. Then, in the pub, it was all back; all he could think over was what to say to Gillinnith about mixing up the epistolae. As he walked toward the bar, and the dark back rooms, he waved at Triste putting the serving area in order. Croneman felt his heart beating every time he saw her. Some late–day sunlight was coming through dusty windows, and in the brightly orange glow she looked astoundingly beautiful. He wished he could do something so heroic she would fall in love with him, but that was just a fantasy. Seeing Triste was not everything Croneman needed to stop worrying about what he was about to say to Gillinnith, but it helped.

He went into the dark back rooms and the air seemed to cool sharply, like he was in a mausoleum. The little hobbit boy came out from a side room carrying a book. It was a regular sized codex, like the kind of book used for city records or important literary works, and it seemed to be about a quarter of the boy's size. He had seen the boy carrying it a few times, but could never see what it was. "Where is master Gillinnith?" Croneman said.

"He still upstairs, has not got out bed yet," the boy said.

Every time the boy missed a word, it seemed to ring in Croneman's ear. And he was not a native speaker of the common language either.

"Ok," Croneman said.

Triste came in with purpose, and Croneman watched her approach. "Sire Croneman, I just remembered, after you left last night, Master Gillinnith was wondering if you would help him place the incoming art pieces around the bar area," she said, then shook her head side to side while smiling very sweetly, a habit she had that Croneman always found made him slightly more attracted to her — it was the way her hair would sweep across her cheeks, he loved to see it. "You know what he's like."

"Yes, I will, of course I will," Croneman said, "you know, you don't need to call me 'sire' elves are no longer in control … or anything," he added the words "or anything," but what he meant to say was 'thankfully' in an attempt to show he wasn't one of those bitter elves, but in the moment that too seemed too much, or wrong somehow, and his brain came up with something that felt very stupid, but at least hopefully got what he could not say in words across in tone.

"I know, but it's …" she said, they had had this conversation before: "don't call me "sire," Tristie, those old elf laws are long gone," "yes, but it's the way I was brought up, my parents taught me the respect for elves," "it is a very different world now," "yes, but habits do linger." Croneman thought, she must have became an adult as the last of the elven wars ended — when elven rule over most of the world ended, and the new human governments were born. Attitudes toward elves were very varied, among humans. Most of the people who had hassled Croneman on the streets were young, teenaged, or older humans with an obvious antipathy toward their old rulers.

"It's alright,' Croneman said, after a silent pause.

"Well, I'm glad you are here, Gillinnith also wants a few new beer glasses — customers only managed to break four yesterday, but …" she tossed her head to one side and raised her arm up.

"I got dem, four medium glasses, 6 coppers each," the hobbit boy said, his voice breaking the moment a bit.

Triste seemed startled, and looked down. Then she smiled at him, leaned forward and put her hands on her knees, "Did you?" she said.

"Yes, did it this morning, they here," he said, and ran into another side room, a storage room. While they waited, Croneman and Triste looked at each other, they smiled. The boy ran out resting a piece of paper on the top of his book. "Receipt."

Croneman was very impressed.

"You asked for a receipt?" he said.

"Yes, you told me, you told me last time to get one, I remembered, so I got one this time too," he said. Croneman remembered what the boy was referring to. A few weeks ago he had sent the boy on a similar errand, and Croneman told him to get a receipt from the shop owner — Croneman wanted to know exactly how much money was spent, what was bought, and who from; just in case the boy come back having spent too much, or got the wrong thing. The boy had done his job well then, he had done his job even better now — and no one had asked him to do it.

Croneman felt for the purse in his pocket, and then threw the boy several coppers. The boy's eyes lit up and went for them. "For doing so well, boy," Croneman said. The boy ran off, his book cradled in his chest. He was apparently ten years old, but had the body of a human about four or five. "Smart boy," Croneman said.

"What's his name?" Triste said.

"I don't think he has one," Croneman said.

Triste thought about this. "That's sad," she said.

There was a pause.

"What's that book he's carrying?"

"I have no idea," Triste said.

Somehow this made them both laugh.

The windows upstairs let in a lot of light, and there was a smell of coffee bring brewed and water being boiled. Whenever Croneman heard the sound of boiling water it always reminded him of rain on a thin roof. This meant that Gillinnith was just getting out of bed. It was about midday, but this was Gillinnith's daily routine. Nothing would ever alter his routine, ever.

Gillinnth's quarters were roomy, and well decorated. Grand would not be the right word exactly, but there was an aspiration toward that. There were artworks that Croneman found quite tasteful, because he himself had picked them. Because Croneman was an elf, Gillinnith was obsessed with getting his opinion of "the good things in life." That may have been why Gillinnth wanted to employ Croneman initially, because being an elf he could make things look more respectable and could write and speak Vallarian.

Croneman knocked before entering the living room, and then standing beside a life–sized statue of a wild beast, he shouted "Master Gillinnth?"

He paused, and stood in silence.

Eventually he repeated, "Master Gillinnth?" He heard a "Uhmmf," the sound people make when tasting something they greatly enjoy — then Master Gillinnth came into the room wearing an open dressing robe and underwear, and nothing else. Two years ago, when he was still living in the elven sanctuary on the island of Ishterwood, such a thing would have shocked him deeply. "Croneman! Croneman, my dear friend, beautiful day, isn't it, you are looking so great, my friend, have you had a hair cut?"

"No sir, I haven't," Croneman said.

"You don't need to call me sir, Croneman," he said, despite every impression he liked it, "It sounds too close to 'sire' for my tastes," he said.

"Sorry, sir" Croneman said.

"So you haven't cut it, you've done something, it looks great," he said.

"Thank you," Croneman said, he smiled instead of saying anything else. He did like a compliment, even if he never quite knew what to do with them.

"Croneman," he said, reclining on a bright red lounge bed with an uwe and ah, "I have a problem."

Croneman's heart almost stopped, his nerves felt like they burst. It was almost painful – he could have died over worrying what Gillinnth would say next. "Oh?" Croneman said. He was trying his best to control his face, hide his fear.

"Yes, I will need an elf's opinion, the bar space. Is there anything more we can do to make it feel better — more cultured?"

If there was a subtext to this, Croneman was missing it.

"Did those artefacts come this morning?"

"Yes, Gillinnth said, "they came early this morning, Triste put them in the basement, waiting for (he pointed at Croneman, smiling a wide and toothy smile Croneman would never feel wasn't somehow vaguely threatening) you."

"Ok," Croneman said, "I'll get right on it."

Within an hour, Croneman had set most of the artefacts up behind the bar. He had had to move a few of the bottles around, so the art pieces had small spaces to themselves, and they could not (with luck) be carelessly or accidentally knocked. Croneman was actually proud of his own work, which was rare for him, even if most pieces were placed where they arbitrarily felt right – rather than adhering to any sort of elven philosophy of decoration, like Gillinnth seemed to think Croneman was a secretly a master of.

While Croneman worked the hobbit boy sat in the furthest corner watching him, the huge dark brick of his book was on the table in front of him. Triste was cleaning the back area, where the water closets could be found — mostly sweeping up bits of broken pipe and washing stale beer out of the grass. Arden had many canals running through it, and they split the city into many small areas or districts, and Gillinnith's pub had its back on one of these canals. The sun was now very low, and water in the canal was starting to sparkle as the sky glowed amber, and light was disappearing from the streets. The pub would start filling with customers as soon as the sun had fully set, as per the laws of the city, but for now the city was calm. Croneman walked over to the boy, whose large hobbit eyes were glaring at him. "There, do you think master will be happy with that?" Croneman said, his arms crossed and his grin wide as he focused on the bar.

"I think so," the boy said.

Croneman put his hands on his back and nodded, and then looked at the boy, down at the book before him, and then back up at the boy. The hobbit's wide eyes always made Croneman uneasy, so he looked back at the book on the table. "What's the book?"

The boy quickly grabbed it and pulled it toward him, covered with emotion. He tried tucking it under the table, trying to hide it, but then seemed for some reason unwilling to do this too, and slowly put it back. Seeing this made Croneman realise how strong the boy actually was, the book looked almost bigger than his torso.

"Come," Croneman said, "Give it to me."

The boy had a strange look in his eye, it was something like terror, but he lifted the book up and handed it over. It was an old book, the cover was clearly once a brilliantly deep blue, but over long years this had dampened to a colour warn out and exhausted. He sat down beside the boy as he opened the cover to the first page and read the title.

It was a copy of The Wonderings of Odaeus. An elven epic poem about the hero who wondered the sea for twenty years, discovering the lands around Ulyitherana, when when the world was young. Before the time the race of hobbits were created, and the only humans were the small number left in the Old World, after the first race, those mysterious beings, ceased to be. This was one of the two epic poems from the very earliest days of the elven race. There had been, until just ten years ago, a law against translating this book into the common language under the penalty of a fine. But translations were made, and when translation of it became legal a team of human scholars was prepared to work on an official, government–approved translation that was quite popular. Some editions, Croneman had heard, replaced all uses of the word 'elf' (or the variations — 'Vir' in the Vallarian) with 'human' – rewriting the story, and rewriting the history.

But the boy had handed him the original Valarian text. Croneman read over the first line, still so familiar to him from his education on Ishterwood:

Iter virumque canō

He flicked through the rest. The pages were in fantastic condition considering how old the book looked. There were even drawings occasionally, depicting scenes from the story.

"Where did you get this?" Croneman said.

"From the shop, with some of the copper coins you and master give me." That was money they gave him for the occasional sweet, or because he had done something clever or well — like he had earlier that day. But they would only give him spare change, and even an old copy of a book in Vallarian would not be cheap. "I saved up for long time," the boy said, seemingly sensing Croneman's thinking.

"How much can you read?"

"Not many. I hoped you'd read it me, teach me."

This was the first time Croneman had been asked to teach anyone anything, and he was not sure he would be any good at it. He could feel the boy was looking intensely at him now, hoping that Croneman would not reject him or laugh at him, like Croneman could somehow feel the boy had had before. He thought, very cruelly on reflection, that hobbits only tended to live for twenty to thirty years — some elves Croneman knew well would wonder what the point would be. Such a short life could not hope to see a lot of the joy stories and reading could offer. But when Croneman looked up from the words in the book, he could see a great intelligence in the boy's eyes. Suddenly all he wanted was to help another struggling mortal.

Croneman felt like crying, but he didn't. Instead he swallowed a clump of emotion with a smile. He put his arm around the boy and pulled him close, and gave him a hug.

"Yes," Croneman said, "I will."

The boy did not put his arms around Croneman in return, but instead when Croneman pulled himself away the boy paused and then leaned into Croneman's chest for another hug. "Thank you," he said. They hugged again, this time for longer.

"Do you have a name?" Croneman said, "I have never asked."

There was a pause, then a single word came from the mass hugging into him.

"No," the boy said.

Hearing that said really upset Croneman. "Well, how about, what would you like to be called?"

There was a long silence.

"I don't know."

"We'll find you one, we'll find you one."


THE END

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